The Role of Active Imagination in Shamanism and the Misunderstanding of “Psychosis”

I have seen so much misunderstanding in Western culture about what shamanism is, and there seems to be a pervasive ignorance about how shamanic cultures differ from the Western post-industrial culture. To the Western mind a shaman will appear “crazy” (mentally ill) because of what the shaman says and/or believes. This is especially so if a person does not have any spiritual framework through which to view the shamanic experience. I have heard people say that what a shaman says or claims is “made up”, and “not real.” These beliefs are often furthered when the ritualistic practices of the shaman are laid bare. In the same ways that outsiders might find ritualistic aspects of mainstream religions and cults bizarre, someone with little knowledge of shamanism may find shamanistic practices bizarre, and if they have their own religious ideologies they may even view them in a paradigm of evil, sorcery, demonism, and the like. Unlike mainstream religions which tend to have consistent ritualistic practices, neoshamanic ceremony and ritual is complicated by the fact that it is often extremely individualistic, so may not have any consistency or similarity between one shaman and the next. This is primarily because shamanism itself, while culturally dependent, is also a guided practice, and the Western neoshamanic movement does not have a historical cultural context. (See here for a further discussion on shamanism versus neoshamanism). Regardless of cultural underpinning, shamans believe the guiding they receive is by the spirits, and by the frequent visits the shaman makes to the spirit world.
This spiritual guidance, as an internal process that usually cannot be directly witnessed by another person, can seem eccentric and may raise suspicion about the shaman’s mental health. But this is a cultural dilemma really, because shamanistic cultures accept the shamanic way of being and understand the role of imagination in life. Shamanic cultures value direct experience through that means as the supreme way of knowing. Anthropologists call this “magical thinking”, and it can be the characteristic thought-pattern of entire cultures. Psychologists have identified magical thinking as a developmentally appropriate aspect of childhood. So the human propensity towards magical, or imaginative thinking is cross-cultural. What is not cross-cultural is how much magical thinking is tolerated and at what point it is labeled as “mentally ill.”
Dr. Jim Gagne, a true rationalist of the scientific ilk, represents the Western mindset when he says of magical thinking: “Magical thinking is the unrealistic, irrational thought processes of children as well as adults with certain mental illnesses.” This is an example of the cultural bias towards logical, rational thinking which attempts to pathologize and subvert imaginative thought.
Tragically, what the rational, Western thought preference denies is the basic fact that reality occurs in the head– it is a made up construct of your own thoughts, beliefs, ideas, expectations, which are out-pictured and reflected back inwardly. This is true even if you are highly trained to employ very strict guidelines in observation. An example of this is found in the fact that certain colors did not seem to exist in ancient cultures. Why? Because they had yet to identify the distinctions in colors linguistically. In other words, if a word does not exist to describe something, that thing does not really exist in reality. This isn’t a matter of seeing something and just not having a word, because eventually if enough people see something, they will create a common language to talk about it. So imagine all the possibilities that we have yet to see or define!
Another aspect of this is the idea of where reality actually occurs. Does it occur external to our observation, or internal, where our senses bring in the information and we put it together in a way that makes sense of it? The cultural preference towards the rational mind would have us believe reality occurs externally, and through our senses we can take in “pure information” and then by using rationality and a scientific method we can deduce “truth.” But at the end of the day, all reality actually occurs in our perception– a much more ambiguous construct than the scientific method would have us believe. We literally create reality through our perceptions of what we are experiencing.
So then, dreams are reality, delusions are reality, hallucinations are reality, near death experiences are reality. It’s ALL reality. How can there be any true distinction between our various brain wave states, to say one is “real” and one is not? The shamans have known this for millennia! And shamans have many different states of consciousness, more than we understand in our cultural preference for rationalism.
Here’s an extreme example of this rational reality dilemma: many, many people are convinced they have suffered satanic ritual sexual abuse as children. Did they, or was that somehow suggested to them in their very dissociated minds? One characteristic of magical thinking is high suggestability. But does it matter, when either way, they experience the trauma AS IF IT HAD HAPPENED to them? So we can look at it and believe it’s highly improbable, that these are likely “false memories.” In this we blame the victim by denying them the experience of the trauma, by invalidating them. This really isn’t rocket science. Many studies have shown that people respond physiologically, psychologically, emotionally in their dream states in the same ways they would if the events in the dreams were happening in waking state- the only reason we do not physically act out our dreams is that our bodies produce the hormones that paralyze our muscles during REM so that we don’t. (“Because all skeletal muscle groups except those that govern eye-movements and breathing are profoundly inhibited during REM sleep for, it is to be expected that most muscular responses to dreamed movements will be feeble. Nonetheless, these responses faithfully reflect the motor patterns of the original dream. Similar observations have been made by Fenwick et al. (1984)”). So tell the mind it isn’t “real.” In the NOW time it is experienced as real. It is only after we awake and process the experience that we make a distinction between waking reality and dreaming reality, and we assign the labels or “real” and “unreal.” In shamanic cultures no such distinction exists.

But see, that’s what people in Western culture are taught to do- categorize and define between states of consciousness in a way that prefers certain states over others, and certain types of thinking over others. We are taught from the time we are small children in our culture to be ashamed of our abilities, our knowledge, by subverting our way of knowing. We are taught to be small, because to imagine too big is “crazy” and won’t be accepted in our culture. We’ll allow you to “play” because you’re just a child, but that play will have it’s very strict boundaries defined by society (imagine with Hot Wheels, and Barbie dolls, and Tonka trucks, and action figures- we’ll spoon-feed it all to you), and this will only be accepted for a period of time, and then you have to put all that away. And so at 2 and 3 years old we already begin to subvert, to control. This doesn’t happen in shamanic cultures. So what we call “off the deep end” or “crazy” is a cultural tragedy we’ve been spoon-fed to believe. In shamanic culture imagination is king, and people in the community seek the help of shamans because shamans contain active imagination. Because shamans walk in two worlds, they literally dream the world into existence, and bridge the gap between the world of the imagination (or what they would call the spirit world) and the third dimensional reality we live in. In Western culture this gap is huge, and the task of a shaman is no easy task! So consider the possibility that the eccentricity of a shaman in post-industrialized, rational culture is going to be a direct reflection of this gap. It’s only “madness” if you choose to see it as such.

I’ll be writing in the future about how magical thinking, active imagination, lucid states of consciousness, how this way of BEING contributes to healing and creates reality. So stay tuned!


The Dinky Bird, Maxfield Parrish, 1904